“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children” — Nelson Mandela
I was waiting for the traffic to start moving on Karachi’s Khayaban-e-Shaheen last Saturday when my attention was drawn by gentle yet persistent knocking on my car window. Expecting a begging child, I automatically dived for spare change. However, the face on the other side of the window was not that of a child but of a young man’s: “Baji, havn’t you recognised me? I am Shah Nawaz”, he said (in Urdu). “Baji, I have seen you after a long time, please take these flowers from me”, he continued. He would not accept payment, but I insisted. Within seconds our encounter was over, but Shah Nawaz’s beaming face remained with me as we drove on, not as a happy memory but as a painful shaft of regret for not being able to rescue him from the streets when I had first met him more than 10 years ago.
Shah Nawaz must have been about 12 at the time. At first he was merely one of the many children who thronged any car stopping at a traffic light. Gradually, however, I began to recognise him. One day he asked for medicine for his mother and in the process came to know where I worked. He would occasionally drop in to the office and ask for money. Although I was happy to help him, I wanted to do something substantial, more permanent, and convinced him to go to school. He was initially reluctant, but on my insistence identified a school in Korangi that could accommodate him at the entry level. I bought him books and a uniform and had him enrolled, naively believing that I had changed a life. When I saw him a few months later, he was selling flowers once again and told me that he had not been to school at all. I do not remember what reason he gave me, but I do remember being angry and disappointed and, more unfortunately, giving up on him!
In retrospect, my attitude towards Shah Nawaz appears to border on arrogance. I had sought to help him without making an effort to understand the peculiar circumstances of his life and, more damagingly, by first imposing my value system on him and then abandoning him when the problem appeared too big for me to handle. I was, however, not entirely wrong in my perception of the enormity of the problem: according to some reports, there are at least 1.2 million children on the streets of Pakistan who either have no contact with their families or no knowledge of them. Driven to the streets by poverty or exploitation, once there, most survive by prostituting themselves (which exposes them to a host of sexually, transmitted diseases)or stealing and in the process, turn to cheap, readily available drugs to escape hunger, loneliness and fear. It is anybody’s guess what type of citizens they are likely to become as they grow up.
The exploitation of children is not unique to Pakistan and is in fact a common feature throughout the developing world. It appears to be most effectively addressed when NGOs and governments join hands to create awareness and take action. CNN reported an example of this joint effort recently: the Indian police busted a brothel which offered 10-year-old girls for prostitution. Not only had the police taken a stand against influential persons who often protect these rackets, but it was also sensitive to the fact that the children themselves were victims rather than perpetrators of the crimes attributed to them. There are reports that Pakistani authorities realise the need for such joint efforts and, with the support of NGOs, are in the process of establishing a shelter for the rehabilitation of street children in Karachi. Although the shelter may not be more than a drop in the ocean, it will be a positive step that can be replicated. In the meantime, any individual effort to work for the betterment of these children, even if it is merely creating awareness, is better than silence and apathy because the issues that threaten children today will tomorrow come to haunt the very society that appears largely to ignore them.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 8th, 2011.